Of Mice and Molecules...
Just a brief thought for today.
Ask people whether we need to pay our teachers more, what do they say? Yeah, of course (at least until we get the tax bill, but that's more of an reality-vs-ideology issue and I, for once, would like to stay in the realm of the latter).
Ask the same people whether we need to give all students equal access to school, the answer's the same.
So we have this situation where we want to (a) pay teachers more, (b) not have additional revenue be raised and (c) treat every student equally. Mashing these ideas together in my head, I came up with a solution that, on its surface, may seem trollish but might actually hold some water when critically examined.
My hypothetical solution: Get rid of special ed.
Well, don't get rid of it. The classes still exist, but we normalize the amount we spend on special ed to what we devote to the average student and spread the savings out as higher teacher salaries.
Let's look at this argument from a financial perspective first: This report places the average cost of a regular student at $7,552, while the cost of a special ed* student is $16,921**. This monster of a report says that 12.1 percent of K-12 students are in some form of special ed (summarized here; interestingly, it's now more fashionable to have autism than be intellectually disabled these days).
There it is: It's 2.24 times more per year to educate a special education kid than a 'regular'. With 12.1% of kids being special ed, we're spending 27 percent of our resources on one kid in eight.
So let's examine a little hypothetical school of 100 kids that almost perfectly mirrors the US average. About 78 of the kids are regular ed and 12 are special ed. At the cost per student I mentioned above, the school's budget is $808,148 (at $7,552 per regular kid and $16,921 per special ed kid; I've used the exact fraction of students, so my numbers will differ slightly from yours if you are calculating along at home).
As I mentioned before, the special ed kids take more than a quarter of the resources, likely because they require more specialized folks, smaller class sizes, etc.
Let's look at the effect on teacher pay if we level the playing field by reducing the per student spending on special ed to the levels we spend on our general ed students. A little math tells me this saves $113,340, a whopping 14 percent of the school's budget. Right there is the money you need to increase the average teacher salaries without a tax increase.
By how much would salaries go up? Hard to say, as not all the per student spending is on salaries, but I'd guess it would be more than 14%, as the savings wouldn't come at the cost of increased overhead. For my teacher friends in the North Carolina public schools, this would be about a $5K increase on the $35K salary for a 10-month teaching contract for a rookie teacher.
So why don't we do this? The main reason is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which stipulates that public education must be free and "appropriate" (whatever that means). The de facto argument I'm advancing is that, in an effort to protect a few people, we've hurt the majority of students.
Obviously there have to be limits on how much we can spend on each student. Parents need to understand that there is a significant expectation of parental responsibility in equipping your child to succeed past a certain basic level that is covered by the public. This is one of the risks you assume when you slip off the condom. And while there is certainly an argument to be made that it's worth investing early to turn someone who would otherwise be a taxpayer liability into a functioning member of society, let's be honest - a significant fraction of special ed kids will be dependent on society to some degree for the rest of their lives.
There is an implicit double standard here. There's also the simple fairness of it all. Why should we spend significantly more on one kid than another? If a gifted program tried to pull this shit, people would scream bloody murder.
Arguments like this seem to be ignored, simply because it's hard to tell a family that's already drawn a bad hand that they're fucked. We are, as a society, acting irrationally because it's - what - politically correct? Makes us feel good? Both?
It's pretty clear that the opportunity costs of overspending on special ed are pretty darn high. It's basic economics that people respond to incentives. Teachers are no different - when pay is crappy, you're likely to get people who are willing to work for less. See those NC public teacher salaries? They're terrible! Without belittling anyone, it's simply not realistic to expect every person working under those conditions to be part of the 'A' team, regardless of how passionate they might be about educating the future. I suspect there are some other metrics that would support the observation that there's been a broad decline in education since the IDEA legislation passed in 1975 (a decline in SAT scores, for example, although this is complicated stuff to make sweeping generalizations on).
So there it is, the ultimate populist paradox - curb special ed and pay teachers more. Do you agree with me and become a monster or agree with me and become a pariah to public educators?
I would really, really love to hear what actual teachers have to say about this.
*I have no idea what the politically correct term is for special education students, but that's what the NEA report calls them, so I'm going with that as a catch-all.
**These are 2004 dollars.
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Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.